Down to earth — memory lapses

Originally published January 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.

I can hardly believe it’s a new year already. It feels like mere days rather than twelve months since I waxed rhapsodic about visiting greenhouses and using candlelight to cozy winter’s dark nights. And I remember bemoaning the lateness of spring as if summer never happened. Time seems to stretch in winter like a rubber band cocked at spring. And then doesn’t it go flying? Come spring we can hardly help but be in a mad rush to enjoy every last second. Right up until the band hits the wall of the holidays with a resounding thwack and flops to the floor.

Which is why writing notes about the garden and taking a few pictures through the season is as necessary as planting and weeding. Taking the time to mark the best—and worst—moments puts the stretch in the elastic of time. And looking back at those records now helps me recall that not only did summer happen, it was long and glorious (so was fall), and has plenty to teach about the coming year.

Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Eva') For instance, reading my notes from May, I am reminded that just because something looks dead doesn’t always mean it is. The roses I thought were goners after cutting them back before April’s deep freeze (winter truly was interminable last year) bloomed into November. I also expected to lose what was left of my Black Lace elderberry but evidently its disgusting infestation of borers went to the dump along with the deadest branches. The remaining trunk might be oddly lopsided but its wonkiness was hardly noticeable under a healthy arch of deep purple foliage and berries.

My Clematis ‘Roguchi’, on the other hand, never made a comeback. And, as far as I can tell from photographs, its replacement didn’t live past July. Since losing, two years ago, a C. tibetana that had bedazzled my arbor for a couple of Octobers with sprays of citrus peel flowers, it’s beginning to sink in that clematis might only come to my garden to die. I’m sure it’s nothing personal. I’ll chalk it up to acidic soil (they prefer it sweeter), close quarters (their roots want cooling shade but also some room to spread out), improper siting (wet feet through the winter is deadly) and neglect (I should have watered during drought). Lucky for me and my garden, the non-vining C. heracleifolia, which has lovely indigo-blue fairy cap flowers in September hasn’t proved nearly as picky or needy, spreading instead with a moderate amount of enthusiasm.Clematis heracleifolia

I’m glad for the reminder that my garden wanted more blue, a little earlier in the season, after the forget-me-nots and before the clematis. The only hiccup is the distinct memory, which I never even wrote down, of a visiting friend’s suggestion that there might be such a thing as “too many plants.” A criticism she knew I’d disregard with a guffaw. And you should too if anyone has dared call the plantiful-ness of your garden into question. Diversity is key to sustainability and amusement.

I plan to take advantage of the opportunities presented by death to fill some of those vacancies with blue-flowering perennials. I’d be tempted to try delphinium if I were up to the challenge. I’m not and it’s nothing personal. Just that I learned more about them this summer and made note that my garden bears little resemblance to Siberia. Turns out, contrary to popular belief, delphinium are extremely cold hardy; it’s our hot, humid summers and comparatively mild winters that do them in. On the other hand, the butterfly magnetic blue spikes of native North American hyssop cultivars such as Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Black Adder’ should be better suited to my garden’s climate and conditions.

The upside of a faulty memory is how easy it is to picture the changes I want to make. Because it seems for all the world like the garden was in full bloom just the other day.

How’s your memory of the past year in the garden? What were the high and low lights?

Falling back

The beginning of Standard Time was marked this year in my garden with a biting rain that changed into a sideways fat-flaked snow. For most of the day bitter weather forced me to rest on the couch with a dog on my feet, a good book in my lap, and my hands wrapped around a cup of tea. Not the worst thing but I fretted a little about plants I should have moved inside already and that all the fall color and last flowers would be blown away. I shouldn’t have worried. The snow didn’t stick and didn’t destroy the nicotianas, and the wind didn’t separate the wine-red sourwood foliage from its branches. The salvias took it all on the chin too and when it comes right down to it, I don’t mind waiting to dig one or two of those plus the dahlias some nicer day.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)Salvia guaranitica and Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'Red velvet sage (Salvia confertiflora)Nicotiana 'Perfume Deep Purple' turned a bilious shade

And even though I shivered and complained I’m grateful for the fall back to winter and a snowy teaser. I want to enjoy the down season or at least take it as it comes. Says Louise Dickinson Rich in We Took to the Woods,

“In civilization we try to combat winter. We try to modify it so that we can continue to live the same sort of life that we live in summer. We plow the sidewalks so we can wear low shoes, and the roads so we can use cars. We heat every enclosed space and then, inadequately clad, dash quickly from one little pocket of hot air through a no-man’s land of cold to another. We fool around with sunlamps, trying to convince our skins it is really August, and we eat travel-worn spinach in an attempt to sell the same idea to our stomachs. Naturally, it doesn’t work very well. You can neither remodel nor ignore a thing as big as winter.”

Guess I’ll quit trying.

How did you spend the fall-back? Are you looking forward to winter? Do you usually bundle up and enjoy it or wish it were summer again?

Down to earth — my indoor garden grows

(Originally published October 15, 2014 in EastBayRI newspapers.)

What was it I said about bringing fewer plants back inside for the winter? I seem to have lost my resolve. Weeks ago, when I was on a tear to be tidy I did throw a couple of plants on the compost. They were real stragglers, too unattractively unhealthy to take up precious windowsill space and probably should have been pitched long ago. Nonetheless, I felt virtuous enough to justify deferring decisions about the rest. Now every plant on my deck is like Welcome Back Kotter’s Horshack, with one hand raised to the sky, shouting, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and I can’t help but want to pick them all.

I remember mentioning an intention to let go of an enormous angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) that never bloomed. As if to prove me impatient and mean it’s bedecked with buds now. Not only will it be impossible for me to compost the plant but I’ll have to give it a prime spot on my entry porch—the plantry—instead of sending it straight down cellar into the dark where it belongs for the winter. But won’t I feel lucky in a few weeks when its big, dangling, pale-yellow flowers fill the evening with lemony sweetness?

Speaking of lemony, it’s high time to find windowsill real-estate for citrus plants too. I brought the Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) inside weeks ago when the night temperatures started to fall into the 50s but I really should offer it to any gardener who turns the thermostat up in the winter instead of layering on sweaters, as I do. Key limes are tropical and would prefer temperatures that hover in the 60s if not 70s. Come to think of it, so would I.

This evening in the plantry
This evening in the plantry

Meyer lemon plants (Citrus ×meyeri) can tolerate more cold—into the 40s—but will do their best winter growing and flowering in the 60s at least. They also want plenty of sun. Unfortunately, the brightest place in my living room happens to be a west-facing corner flanked on one side by our official, but rarely used, front door. I’m on the fence about spending another winter with one out of only two entrances (exits) completely blocked by a spiny behemoth. If it hadn’t set fruit and if nurseries offered trade-ins, I’d have downsized already.

Gardenia and friend in the plantry
Gardenia and friend in the plantry

My gardenia and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) are also beginning to outgrow their welcome. I remember when the gardenia was just a rooted cutting at Logee’s that I added on impulse to a boxful of tiny begonias (now also huge). It was cutest thing. This winter it will entirely fill our only south-facing window. A small price to pay, I suppose, for dozens of bone-white swirly flowers that scented the backyard all summer long. The sweet olive, which these days stands as tall as a ten-year old, earns its floor space by blooming all winter and not demanding the sunniest window.

Both plants would be perfectly happy out in the plantry but I’m holding every inch of space out there not already taken by the brugmansia for my favorite tender perennial salvia, cuphea, plectranthus, and African blue basil plants. I’ll dig and pot them up just before the first hard frost because for now, they’re still busy blooming, feeding the bees, and calling to migrating hummingbirds. In the meantime, I took a bunch of cuttings so one way or another, every shelf and most of the floor, is spoken for. As long as I can get into (and out of) my indoor garden this winter, I guess I’m pretty OK with that.

What’s changed since I wrote the above: The sweet olive landed in the plantry after all and I’m enjoying how its scent greets us as we pass through. And the south-facing sunbeam in the living room that I earmarked for the gardenia is actually occupied by two cats and a dog. Maybe I won’t bring so many stock plants in after all. Have you moved any of your garden indoors yet? Can you still get through your doors and see out the windows?

Down to earth — why my houseplants hate me

(Originally published on April 16, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Don’t abandon indoor plants”)

It’s not often that I imagine my plants quoting dead poets. Or living ones for that matter. But I can almost hear my indoor collection sigh, “April is the cruellest month.” Suddenly, right when they need me the most, I have abandoned them and gone outside to garden. It’s not as if I can help it. None of us could. We’ve been waiting so impatiently for spring to arrive that as soon as the sun came out, the peepers peeped, and the ice-cream trucks started making their rounds, didn’t we all bolt out of the house like a shot, not to return until supper? Trouble is, like everything outside, our houseplants are going through a growth spurt too, which must be every bit as painful as T.S. Eliot suggests.

All winter long I was able to keep a once-a-week watering schedule. Doing the rounds every Saturday morning worked out perfectly. Plants like begonias and citrus that needed to go a little bit dry between watering did, and the ferns and ficus that needed more consistent soil moisture somehow managed to never quite dry out. The half-dormant plants out in my chilly “plantry” required watering even less frequently. Every other Saturday seemed to suit them fine.

That has all changed now. Longer days and a sun that keeps rising higher, hotter, and brighter are universal cues to get growing even for plants that spent the winter relatively warm behind or under glass. And as they begin to photosynthesize in earnest again, they take up more water from the soil and more nutrients too. Come to think of it, this is the time to begin fertilizing. If only I wasn’t so distracted by the garden outside.

Alocasia R.I.P.
Alocasia R.I.P.

Some of my houseplants have reacted to my distraction by handing out ultimatums. For many of them, wilting is a red flag signaling, “pay attention to me right this minute or I will die.” For others it’s an incommutable death sentence. The stress of abandonment and temperature fluctuations between sun-warmed days and winter-chilly nights, together with succulent new growth has also suddenly attracted infestations of aphid and scale. Since I hadn’t noticed sap-sucking populations in residence over the winter, I have to guess that they spontaneously generated out of thin air and opportunity. “April is the cruellest month.”

I’m not sure how they got word but the fully dormant plants stored down cellar in the dark seem to know it’s spring too. Perhaps warmer ambient temperatures can be credited for spurring some anemic looking new growth that begs for the light of day. In any case, it’s time to give fuchsias, salvias, tuberous begonias, fig, and brugmansia a transition and a head start on the season. They should come upstairs and in this particular household, the only way to make room for more plants is to move others out.

April nights are cold but as long as the long range forecast doesn’t mention any temperature too near or below freezing, plants like New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), camellia, and geranium (Pelargonium spp.) that hail from temperate (rather than tropical) climes can begin to join us outside in the garden. And just like us as we venture out, they could use some protection — in their case, shade for a couple of weeks at least — to keep them from burning.

Meanwhile, all of the plants still stuck inside need attending to. They need watering much more frequently. Fertilizing. Insect patrol and grooming. Time that I’m sure we’d all much rather spend outdoors. But to lose, this close to summer, any of the plants that helped keep us sane over the winter, would be truly painful. So let’s not forget about them in April. 

Any casualties in your household lately? 

Rain date

looking out at the (flooded) rain garden
looking out at the (flooded) rain garden

April showers arrived a little early and came with flash flood warnings. It rained so many buckets last night into this morning that Bristol streets became impassable rivers and my back garden is a pond now. And it’s still raining. I spend weeks looking forward to a day like this. A day of such wretched weather that it’s perfectly acceptable to stay in pjs, make endless cups of tea, and read books on the couch. Forgetting completely that on days like this I usually feel restless and spend every minute staring out at the garden wishing I could be there instead of stuck in here. Grass is greener on the other side the window. (Literally too. It’s looking more and more spring-like out there.)

I’m making a rain date to hang out with my garden. What are you doing today?